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Although best known today for the eponymous Bunsen burner, German chemist Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen (Wikipedia), born on this date in 1811, had a foundational role in many areas of modern chemistry. He discovered the use of iron oxide hydrate as a precipitating agent for arsenic, which even today has applications in treating contaminated groundwater. His experiments with arsenic cost him an eye (by an explosion of pyrophoric tetramethyldiarsine) and almost cost him his life, by poisoning. He invented the Bunsen cell, an early electrochemical “battery” that improved upon existing designs by replacing precious metallic platinum with common carbon in the cathode. He used his new cell, among other things, to isolate pure magnesium for the first time, by electrolysis. With Kirchoff, he was instrumental in the development of flame-emission spectroscopy, and used the technique, for which his famous burner was developed, to discover two then-unknown elements–cesium and rubidium. He was, even among the acerbic European academic chemists of his day, widely regarded for his kindness, even temperament, and good character. He died in 1899, aged 88.

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. Colecoman1982 says:

    I would argue that, potentially, he is even more well known for being the inspiration for the naming of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew on the Muppets.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Meant to mention that! Thanks! =]

  2. Colecoman1982 says:

    I would argue that, potentially, he is even more well known for being the inspiration for the naming of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew on the Muppets.

  3. kendrickgoss says:

    Special mention is certainly necessary for a century’s worth of the long-haired-students-set-on-fire in teaching labs by said burner. No matter how many warnings given or heard, or rubber bands given out, it happens every year! Happy Birthday Bob!

  4. Dean Putney says:

    Interesting to read a little more about Robert Bunsen. I like reading about the history behind common things, but it seems like that gets pushed to the wayside too often.